An Interview with American clergyman Protopriest Seraphim Bell by Elena Khomullo, conducted during a trip to Russia
Fr Seraphim Bell is an American, a Protopriest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, founder and former president of the Missionary Department of ROCOR. He established four Orthodox parishes in the USA, did missionary work in Guatemala, Nepal and the Philippines, and also spent time on Mt Athos. At the present time, Fr Seraphim lives at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. His voice reflects his surname as he proclaims sermons about our Lord Jesus Christ. He consoles those in despair with the hope of salvation. Fr Seraphim talks about his path to the Lord, the life of an Orthodox community in America, about the difficulties of missionary work in a pagan land, about our youth and a great deal more.
Fr Seraphim, tell us about your path to God, how you came to Orthodox Christianity living in a country so far away, America, where the majority of the population are Protestants or Catholics.
Let me start from the beginning. My ancestors on both sides of my family hailed from Scotland. Mama grew up in Oklahoma, the home of the Cherokee Indians, and some of our relatives still live there as part of that community. I grew up in California in the family of Scottish Presbyterians. Studying in university, I turned to Christ and began to study the history of Christianity and theology. My wife and I traveled to our ancient homeland, Scotland, where I got my Doctor of Sciences degree in dogmatics. While we lived there, I became a pastor in a local church. When I returned to America, I served for several years at a Presbyterian church in California, but ultimately left the community.
What caused you to leave?
In the most important matter, faith, the community was becoming more and more liberal. I founded a new church in San Jose, CA. It quickly grew to over 300 members. A few years went by, and doubts continued to grow: I didn’t have a good idea of which direction to lead my flock, and what our mission was, who we were as a church. I kept repeating to my parishioners:
“Our goal is to become the Church of the New Testament.”
In conclusion, I always said,
“We are not now the Church of the New Testament, but by Divine Grace we could be someday.”
I hadn’t the slightest idea how this could take place. Finally, I gathered all the parishioners and told called upon them to join me in 40 days of fasting and prayer, and to ask the Lord to reveal His will. The very first evening, at prayer time, one person in my flock introduced me to Frank Schaeffer. Frank is a writer and activist, the son of a renowned Protestant theologian. After our meeting, a few of my parishioners learned more about him. How amazed I was when they told me that Frank converted to Orthodoxy! I remember my reaction:
“There is no need to even entertain this notion.”
A little time went by, and I found out that one of my closest friends was studying Orthodoxy. For several reasons, I became enraged, and I decided that I needed to examine Orthodoxy more closely in order to prove that it was a false teaching, and save my friends from a serious mistake. That’s what I thought at the time, but now, as I look back through the years, I understand how condescending and ignorant I was. When I remember that period of my life, it makes me laugh how stupid I was, how far from reality I was, and I blush to remember.
And yet, that lay the foundation of your conversion to Orthodoxy.
Yes, that was the beginning of my path to the Lord. In my case, as paradoxical as it seems, what helped was my lack of faith and my heartfelt desire to help my friends, to save them. I won’t go into detail, I will only say that I came to the firm determination that Orthodoxy is the true faith, though at the time I wasn’t ready for Holy Baptism, but I listened to my inner voice and sensed that I have to be honest with myself and follow the faith one recognizes as being true.
After I shared this with my parishioners (I spent many months studying the foundations of Orthodoxy, the teachings of the Holy Church), some 120 people joined me in converting to Orthodoxy. We founded a Church of Holy Archdeacon Stephan, the very first martyr. Over the course of over two years, over 150 people received Holy Baptism and joined our parish, which quickly grew to 300 people. The search for the True Faith, the True Church is invaluable, and whoever receives it obtains a treasured jewel.
The process of leaving Protestantism and joining the Orthodox faith was very painful for me. I was attacked, criticized by my family, the bitter loss of friends, the loss of financial support, etc. Still, in the end was all gained much more than we lost.
What problems did you have when you became an Orthodox priest, living in America?
There were many problems, in fact. Over many years I had been a pastor, I had a theological degree, over 120 people converted to Orthodoxy with me, and on that basis, the bishop decided to ordain me to the priesthood right away. In my opinion, this wasn’t quite right, but the Lord allowed it by His Providence, so it was to be. The most difficult thing for me was to be ordained.
It became apparently almost immediately that although I could preach, based on my readings about Orthodoxy, but becoming a spiritual father, a guide, exceeded my abilities, since I had little experience. The Orthodox world view accumulates slowly, and not on the basis of reading books, but from the long-time effect of true living tradition, complete immersion. So I tried to seek out such spiritual guidance. Soon I was directed to the writings of Elder Sophrony and the teachings of St Silouan of Athos. After reading the Life of St Silouan, I visited Elder Sophrony’s monastery in England. I spent several months there. This was a turning point in my life, the beginning of my spiritual edification.
I also decided to move to Greece with my family, and we lived in Thessaloniki for a year. Living there, we were immersed in “the living treasure of Orthodoxy,” we attended divine services, we read the Lives of Saints, venerated relics, received invaluable advice from wise elders, in short, we were under great influence. We visited many monasteries then, and I made about 12 trips to Holy Mount Athos.
As I was preparing to leave Greece, Abbot George (Kapsanis) gave me icons, incense, he made the sign of the cross over me and said, “You received the rare honor of spending time here, serving in the monastery and learning the tradition in direct proximity of holy relics. Now you must return to America and pass along what you received.” These words electrified me. After we returned to America, over the next ten years, or maybe more, I returned to Greece every year and spent a few months on Mt Athos or near Thessaloniki.
You did missionary work in various countries. Tell us about that. How did people of different cultures, with their own social environments and traditions, receive the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Without a doubt, this was a miracle and I sensed special grace to do missionary work in various countries: Guatemala, Nepal and the Philippines. In each of these countries I found that people have a genuine interest in studying Orthodox Christianity. When I would be in these countries, dressed as a priest in a cassock and a cross around my neck, people would approach me and ask who I was and which faith I confess.
In each of these places I found that “the fields were ripe for harvest,” yet very few Orthodox Christians are willing to serve as missionaries, so there are many missed opportunities. I spent most of my time in Nepal, and had I not fallen ill and been sent to Katmandu, I would be there today. Nepal is a remarkable country. The people are very gregarious and openly listen to the preaching of the Faith. Most are Hindu, but more in a cultural than spiritual sense.
But in general, you might say that the country is “on the dark side.” People worship many idols and gods. Demonic possession is a common occurrence. Since I had no other Orthodox Christians with me, it was spiritually inhibited. That is why it is not right to do missionary work alone over a long period of time. Even now, every month I receive e-mails from people in Nepal. I very much hope that they will be given the opportunity to attend divine services in a church, but there isn’t a single Orthodox church in that country today. What we need is a team of Orthodox faithful who would live there, perform everyday services, and try it and see
As far as I know, you also visit Russia and you know how they live . I’d like to know: in your opinion, how are young Russians different from young Americans? Is it hard to find a common language with them? In our nano-tech world, when the computer became every kid’s best friend and companion, how can parents protect their children from the lethal effect of gadgets and destructive games like Pokemon Go, which has even led to death? How can we make children live with God, and not in virtual reality?
I got blessing to visit Russia several times. I made a total of 8 visits. My first was in October, 1993, the day after Moscow’s “White House” was shot up. I lived in Moscow from September 2009 to March 2010 and spent most of 2015 in Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra.
What amazed me most of all during my trips was not the difference but the similarities between the youth of both countries. In some respect, this is very good. This is an outstanding example of the fact that despite the cultural difference and enormous distances that separate us, we are all humans who have similar desires and similar habits. In Russia, I mostly met Orthodox youth, and maybe that’s why I see similarities between them and our youth. Still, I was discouraged when I saw how eagerly lay society, at least in Moscow, absorb the worst aspects of Western culture. Russian youth, just like American youth, try to master all the attributes of “the toys of the world.” This means, in particular, that kids in both worlds share a passion for technology.
Unlimited access to the internet has drawn many people to dependency on pornography and computer games. Some young people can’t live without their smartphones. In fact, many kids prefer to send each other electronic messages than sit face to face and talk. If a parent doesn’t pay attention and allows his child unlimited access to the internet when they are still young, then the likelihood is great that as young people, they will lost to this world, and the parents will be helpless to do anything.
The destructive effect usually begins at an early age, so parental attentiveness is very important. Computers and mobile phones have an overbearing effect on impressionable minds. That is why many tech leaders don’t allow their own children access to gadgets. They have heard how damaging they can be when too much time is spent on them. This alone should serve as a warning and spur us to protect our young children from the effects of the computer and other electronic dependencies.
Fr Seraphim, thank you for your important advice to parents. We hope that they realize this in time and take whatever steps necessary to save their children. Our readers also want to know more about the life of the Orthodox Church in the United States. Do you see cases where people who are ardent Catholics genuinely convert to Orthodoxy and remain adherents? Can you give us examples?
This is a very broad question, and it’s not easy to answer. Every parish had their own character, their own life. Some have blessing for conducting daily divine services, like we did at St Stephan Church when I served there, as we did when I was rector at St Silouan Church. Unfortunately, this is not a widespread practice, and not easy to organize. As a result, people often move from one church to another. Some are so drawn into church life that they arrange their lives according to the church calendar of services and holidays. They regularly make confession and often partake of the Holy Gifts, they make pilgrimages to monasteries. Still, the fact remains, these are the minority. The majority are devoted to this world, and their devotion to the Church is secondary
There is also a difference between those who were born into Orthodoxy (Orthodox from the cradle) and converts to the faith. Converts are often more zealous, and burn with the desire to improve, follow the Church canons, while “cradle Orthodox Christians” adhere to the faith as an ethnic thing. So the latter are often involved in cultural activities (such as Russian festivals, art, etc), but you won’t find them in church that often. Of course, the newly-converted are sometimes so zealous yet so unexperienced that they can cause problems for the priest or parish. Some of the most pious Orthodox Christians whom I know personally are in fact the “cradle Orthodox.”
As far as the conversion of Roman Catholics to Orthodoxy, this happens, and often. I will bring forth as an example someone to came to St Silouan Church. A woman who was preparing to be baptized into Catholicism heard that there was an Orthodox church nearby and decided to visit. Her colleague, a Catholic (who was her sponsor to Catholicism), was very upset and tried to talk her out of it. Finally she said “I just want to attend their service.” He responded, “If you see their service and compare it to ours, you will never return.” And he was absolutely right: after she came to our church service and began reading about Orthodoxy, she quickly decided to abandon her intention to convert to Catholicism and be baptized into the Orthodox Faith. Her friend called me several times to express his dissatisfaction. He said that the Pope announced that Catholics can even take communion in Orthodox churches. I replied that the Pope has no standing in our Church. Finally, in a fit of rage, he yelled at me:
“Do you know what you’re doing? Our Church is against what you are trying to do. Do you understand that?”
Wishing to end the conversation, I said calmly yet firmly
“Yes, I know what I am doing. I am snatching a person about to enter heresy and schism and bringing her to the true faith and the true Church.”
He fell silent, and then said quietly:
“Well, I’d like for our own priests to have your determination and courage.”
Another example. I once baptized a young man, a former Catholic. His mother was a devoted Catholic. She attended the baptism and cried throughout the service; she felt unfortunate that her son made this decision. Still, she would come to church when he was there, hoping that he returns to Catholicism. Gradually, she started reading some Orthodox literature, and finally converted to Holy Orthodoxy together with her husband. From the very start, when she began attending divine services in the Church of Christ, she admitted that she sensed the spiritual profundity and power of Orthodoxy, which she had thirsted for with all her heart, but could not find in the Roman Catholic Church. The Lord finally filled the void in her heart as she received Holy Baptism and the Eucharist, and she never regretted coming to us.
In concluding our discussion, I can’t help but touch upon a matter that is all over the mass media: it is no secret that there is an information war between America and Russia. What must be done to prevent the deterioration of relations in all facets of life, from the civil sphere to the spiritual?
This is a big question, not easy to answer. I agree that this is sad and painful… Our countries are becoming more and more antagonistic towards each other. I am convinced that this would not have occurred had not some influential people not gotten involved who profit from war. In our country, there is a group called “neo-conservatives,” adherents to the notion that there should be only one superpower in the world. They see a threat to their hegemony in a renewed Russia and China, which are developing quickly. They are committed to war with Russia and warn of nuclear attacks. This is madness, there is no other word for it, it is demonic behavior. We Orthodox Christians must understand that we must first of all preserve our faith in Christ. It is written in the Scripture, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” We must fervently pray “O God, save Your people and bless Your inheritance.”
Many of us Orthodox Christians in America do everything we can to tell our compatriots the truth, that our leadership is doing everything it can to provoke Russia to war. But there are very few of us in relation to the overall population of the United States, who are still inclined to believe what their political leaders are saying.
Each one of us must strive to obtain the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit, and then a thousand people around us will be saved.
We must pray for peace with all our strength, pray that the forces of darkness recede, that the Lord saves His people and blessed His inheritance. Many saints and holy elders warned us that war has already begun. That is why we must protect our own hearts from hatred and the desire for war, which the devil wants to implant in each of us. St Seraphim is our guide.
Fr Seraphim, thank you. We wish you Divine help and hope that you visit our country again.
Thank you for the opportunity to be connected to my brothers and sisters in Christ who live in God-preserved Russia. I hope that I can visit again, and that Divine Grace which has been preserved here will touch me as well. Please remember me in your prayers.